The man who enables journalists to replace robots

Guest writer Carl Hinrichsen is Partner Manager at Facebook’s Dublin EMEA headquarters with a focus on E-Commerce, dating and mobile clients. The following is a Q&A he conducted with VitalBriefing CEO and Co-Founder David Schrieberg.

Earnings reports by major news publishers have confirmed that the traditional job profile of journalists is at risk: the New York times are paying severance for the first of 100 newsroom staff they announced to lay off, while NewsCorp are seeing drops in subscribers and advertising revenue. The more dramatically inclined also point to stories about “robot-journalists” (e.g. algorithms used by the Associated Press) and newsgathering drones (submitted for FAA approval by an alliance including the NYT).

Enter David Schrieberg. The winner of top journalism prizes has gone from newspaper- and magazine-journalist to respected digital media executive and serial entrepreneur. His company, VitalBriefing, has created a unique digital content platform and workflow that provide B2B clients with tailored insights and journalists with job-perspectives in the digital age. In our interview David explains why the skills of great journalists are a major asset in the information economy that might cost a few robots their jobs.

When did you realize you weren’t going to continue working as a pure journalist?

I changed careers in 2000, when I started a digital media-consulting firm in Silicon Valley. It was clear to me then that the kind of journalism amenable to digital presentation was not long-form reporting and writing that was closer to my journalistic DNA, heart and prior career. Plus audience patterns were clear: They generally didn’t want to scroll or click through a lot of web pages. But I should say that despite my relatively “early” shift, I have great nostalgia for – and still miss – those years as a “pure journalist.” I loved what I did for those 20+ years.

Can you tell us more about the dynamics that have been influencing journalism in recent years?

Well, I could go on for hours because there are so many critical factors, but the single biggest dynamic is the collapse of the traditional business models that sustained the industry. In the earthquake, old advertising methods, means and effectiveness have disintegrated and that industry is still getting its “head” around the changes. It’s a period of profound transformation in the businesses that nourished and enabled great journalism. Social media is another critical dynamic in the changing landscape. As a result of these two fundamental developments, among others, journalists have been forced personally to take on much of the business and marketing sides of their profession.

Which easy mistakes should journalists avoid making now? What would a journalist want to focus on to get by or even thrive?

It hasn’t been an “easy” field to break into for as long as I’ve been around, and I began as a working journalist in 1979. It’s a different business now, obviously, but there are certain mistakes that cross generations and even industry transformations. First, on the reporting side, never buy the story you’re being told. It’s very easy to be sloppy, to believe what people from all walks tell you – especially those in and/or with power. The classic 1960s cliché – “question authority” – is a central tenet for journalists.

It’s also useful to develop a specialty or expertise. Economics and business studies – as well as literature, history, humanities and science – are invaluable in helping to develop the analytical and storytelling skills applicable to any “niche” journalistic endeavor. I’ve often wished I’d taken the time early to get a graduate degree in any of those areas – particularly economics – as they apply to just about any specialty.

Your company VitalBriefing is focused on providing tailored information services for businesses. When you hire journalists, what kind of profiles are you looking for? Is prior business knowledge required?

Because our core focus is the financial sector, we look for journalists with roots in financial and/or business reporting. Most of our hires have worked at institutions such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters and The Economist. We like wire service journalists, too, because they have the critical skills we need: ability to find, filter, review and synthesize a lot of information and then craft tight, concise content. As we move into other industry “verticals” we bring on journalists with relevant experience.

Employers like the Associated Press and the New York Times are relying on technology to replace parts of the value chain, such as algorithms writing business news, newsgathering drones, etc. While these organizations have been laying off newsroom staff, you are hiring. How do you see humans and machines working together in your company?

Great question and core to our business. Our “raison d’etre” is to create and deliver only relevant, essential, highest-value content. We believe – and fortunately so do our clients – that algorithms only go so far. While they’re broadly effective for locating relevant information, our human filters in the next stage ensure our clients get only what they and their customers need to know. That’s how we save them time and money. And because customer service is one of our key differentiators, we’re immediately reactive to their changing information needs almost on a moment-by-moment basis. Competitors that rely mostly on machines can’t offer that to clients.

In many ways journalism is a calling, a work of passion. Given the challenges and changes to their job-profile, what is your advice to journalists in order to preserve that spirit?

You’re exactly right – journalism is a calling. You don’t go into it to get rich. You do it because you’re driven by passion, insatiable curiosity, outrage, a sense of fairness and justice, intense competitiveness, pride in craftsmanship, infinite persistence, and both impatience and patience. This industry’s revolution has been underway for 20+ years, and these are hard times for journalists as the industry transitions to whatever comes next. At the same time, I’m absolutely convinced that the profession will come out strong on the other side as viable business models take root. But we’re not there yet and it takes a strong stomach to participate in the adventure.